Good Housekeeping

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All the time — all the time I tell you! — people are asking me: how do you lead such a stylish and enchanting lifestyle despite the hardship and limitations of your surroundings?

Why, I simply don’t know! I usually answer. But really. How unfair of me not to give it more thought and care. And so, dear readers, a little gift.  A how-to, of sorts, for building around you a coccoon of domestic bliss and contentment with everyday materials you too can find in your very own homes and neighborhoods.

Winter Warmers

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“Is there still much more?” she asked

Perhaps you’ve found that your snug little bungalow, for all its winsome charm, is not quite up to the insulation standards of those dreary new buildings back home.  Are wind gusts finding their way through those thin and rattling steel plates that separate you from the elements? Are they blowing out the matches you use to ignite your stove when you’re trying to make dinner? Yes? Well!  All you need is a steady supply of firewood for your fireplace and you can say goodbye to hypothermia.

Step one: Take a month or two and ask every expat you meet where they found their firewood. Sift through rumors, hearsay. Discard suggestions of finding those guys with the trucks on the side of that one road that’s after the tunnel that’s on the way out of town you know?  Wait until somebody has a phone number for a guy called Zakro.

Step two: Ask a Georgian friend to call Zakro. Learn Zakro no longer exists.  Return to step one. Repeat.

Step three: When your Georgian friend connects to, erm, let’s call him Zakro II, be sure you have some conceptual understanding of metric measurements for volume. <—- IMPORTANT!

Step four: Arrange the delivery. Be home two hours before the agreed-upon delivery time, because that is when Zakro II and colleagues will turn up.

Step five: Be ready to explain to the grizzled village men standing on your doorstep with appraisal in their eyes that your Gigantic Fake Husband is still at work but should be home at any moment. Poor Gigantic Fake Husband. Between all the business trips and long hours. It’s like you hardly see him anymore.

Step six: Watch with interest as a poor broken man carries your wood up four flights of stairs, taking something like 25 trips, hauling around five logs at a time in a ragged flour sack. When you hear him approach your landing by his groans and wheezing, find something interesting in the kitchen to wash to distract your debilitating guilt. Every few trips, smile sweetly and offer him water in hopes that his family won’t come after you when he collapses from cardiac arrest on your stairs. Tip him outlandishly.

Step seven: You really might have overdone it on the firewood order.

Step eight: Google time!!  Try these search terms: “How to burn a metric ton of completely fresh cut, dripping wet wood” and “creosote buildup.” There is nothing the internet can’t solve!!

Step nine: Make a mug of hot chocolate, relax in your bean bag, and enjoy applying an even coat of singe to your smoking and hissing water sticks all winter long!

Not pictured: the rest of it.

Not pictured: the rest of it.

Sustainable, Reclaimed, Artisanal Clothing Racks

No closet or wardrobe in your little bungalow boudoir? No IKEA from here to Moscow? No sweat! If you’ve cracked an interiors magazine recently, you already know that a stylish and sustainable solution is well within your grasp.

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Just stroll down to your nearest wooded parkland (or in a pinch: abandoned lot/makeshift dump), and reclaim yourself a branch. Try to select one with a delicately undulating arch and smooth profile. Also, one that is not entirely buried in decomposing organic matter. Pro tip: wear tall boots!

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With a few decorative chain links discovered in the haberdashery located in the underpass, voila!

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Sheepskin from Scratch

Speaking of stylish interiors mags, who hasn’t noticed that sheepskin throws are popping up everywhere these days?

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There’s an argument to be had that decorative items in the shape of dead animals can be something of a bummer, but who am I to flaunt the prevailing style zeitgeist? Also, there’s a lot of sheep here. I spied a quest.

First, I asked my hunter friend Giorgi for tips. He spends a lot of time in lodges with disturbing taxidermied wildlife and is an all-around go-to guy when it comes to dead animals. I figured he’d know the best local craftsman handling pelts and skins.  Sure enough, he got a name, and one afternoon we drove on the old road out to the airport, down a nondescript and shattered alley, to knock on the gate of the skin man.  Giorgi spied him over the top of the gate, which he had briefly scaled to yell over the wall. “I hope he survives long enough to open the door,” he warned me.

A charming but quite toothless ancient answered at the gate and confirmed that yes, he was the guy.  When asked about sheepskin he laughed with a sudden snap of youth that made him look not a year over 95.  “Sheep? No! Why sheep? It’s not even worth it! I do wolf… tiger… Why sheep?”

“For decoration,” Giorgi explained. The man looked skeptical. Hmph. Clearly not up on the latest. I pulled out my phone and (fully aware of that ringing sound from the clash of civilizations) flipped through a photo selection of tastefully styled modern interiors like the above.

Right, says the guy. I can do it. Just bring the carcass.

*Blink*

I had not considered I would have to procure my own dead sheep.

It is not really part of my normal retail therapy routine.

When somebody throws down “bring me fresh hide of sheep” into conversation, that’s kind of it for me. Time to call it.

But Giorgi’s mad for these quests and has to see where they end up.  The skin guy told us where to get the sheep, pretty easy, just these guys down the road.  Of course you don’t need a whole one.  They just use the meat and throw the skins away as worthless, so you can pay ’em a little tip to skin them nicely and you’re on your way.

Just one little thing, says the skin man. It really might be better in summer, when the sheep are moving around. In winter they just stand still pissing themselves and their legs turn yellow and really, nothing gets that white.  Pro tip!

So I’m nearly there.  Once I get my urine-free sheep carcass and deliver it to the ancient skin man, (provided he survives the winter, inshallah), I’ll be well on my way to luxurious comfort and serenity.

Bread and Circuses

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There was a restaurant called Moro by my old flat in London. Once famous and sought after, by the time I got there it had settled into comfortable neighborhood institution.  Moro had a rep for great sourdough bread, and I love few breads on this earth more than sourdough.  In one of Moro’s cookbooks, they tell you how to make your own sourdough starter from scratch.  There is no reason on earth why you should ever contemplate this. Sourdough starters require care and attention, regular feeding sessions and bake-offs. Lovingly stored and tended, they can live more or less forever.  There are bakeries for a reason.

But I haven’t found any here. Anyway, I rather feel it would good for me to have some other living thing to care for beyond myself and my rosemary plant, and a pet is like wooooah slow down.  Besides the rosemary plant is looking a little peaked these days. I need a new object of nurture. And so I’m pleased to tell you that I’m now expecting. A precious little sack full of bacteria.

Step one! Gather your materials.

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  • One bunch of red grapes
  • 500g flour
  • One litre water
  • One muslin bag
  • One bucket that has not recently housed a bat body

Step two!

Mix up the flour and water in the bucket.

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Place the grapes in the muslin bag, and smoosh em good with a rolling pin. Or failing that, a handy empty bottle of Georgian vino will do.

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Squeeze out some grape juice into the flour paste and then submerge the bag entirely.  Cover, and let it gestate for the next two weeks.

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I took a peek yesterday, one week in. Moro the Cookbook did not say it was strictly forbidden, but it felt a little naughty. Moro the Cookbook is also silent as to whether the bucket should now house a moldiferous mess, but I don’t see much way around it so I’ll assume everything’s right on target. Next week, the great unveiling.

So that’s it: just get a hold of a minor himalayan range of green firewood, incontinent dead sheep, some buckets of mold and a dried out stick and you too can have it all!

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Home Sweet Home

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It was with the exhaustion of 40-hours-in-transit that I collapsed onto my chair this evening after a halfhearted trip to the crappy grocery store. The crappy grocery store is positively Soviet in the emptiness of its shelves (they spread out the toilet paper – one pack every couple of feet – so that the 15 that they’ve got take up the whole aisle. It adds a certain allure to each 4-pack. Marketing Charmin like its Chanel).  It’s not the best option in town, as it proved once again, but the crappy supermarket is close and it was very cold and I was very, very tired.

I’d been on an insulating frenzy all afternoon, between breaks from work.  I’d come back to a frigid Georgia laden with a Home Depot haul of thick foam runners and sticky insulating tape, and foam filler spray cans and heat-activated window shrink wrap.  The wind was gusting banshee wild all day and up in my attic it felt as though a thousand little straws had pincushioned the flat and somebody was blowing tight arctic kisses through them all.  I’d followed countless leaks back to their sources, smothered them in foam and tape and plastic.  But there were always more.

So, after a day of this, exhausted and jet lagged, I settled into the chair to goof around on the internet.  I was settling into a happy comfort when suddenly WHOOSH!  A meteorite flash diagonal across the room.  ZOOM. Before my brain could register WHOOSH it zipped back, tracing a long deep ‘U’ across the room, just behind my head.

I, dear reader, hit the deck.  Jet lag forgotten. Jack rabbit instincts taking over. Have I ever moved so fast?  I army crawled to the corner, gasping, panting.  Over my shoulder, a horror.  I saw the chair I’d just vacated under aerial assault.  Again, and again, speed so lightning fast you could barely make out wings, barely make out color.  But I’m not an Austin grad for nothing.  I know bat when I see bat.

I watched from my curled-up ball in the corner in absolute, unmitigated terror as this mad creature bombed about like a ricocheting bullet.  Every ten swoops or so he’d pause for a breather.  This was incomprehensible. This was the worst thing that could happen. I cannot solve this. I am near the front door, I can just leave.  But I am in my pajamas. And it’s well below freezing.

The bat was in a frenzy. I had no idea how fast they were.  My ceilings, you should know, are not exactly towering.  In fact, this being an attic, they dramatically slant until they meet the ground.  There was not room for two of us in this joint.  I knew I had to let him out, it was the only way.  But the scorched earth between me and the nearest window was treacherous in the extreme, unavoidably violating the airspace my nocturnal friend had claimed for himself.  I sat there, completely uncertain as to whether I could will my limbs to move.  Once or twice they ignored me, giving me a chance for a second thought about locomotion into the batswoop.

Finally, I crept out of my foxhole, hyperventilating, terrified, knowing at the smallest fraction of any second it would swoop again, right over me.  Somehow I made it to the window, raised one arm towards the latch and then WHAM threw the window open, took a sideways dive for the floor, just as the bat loosed itself from its roost and swooped straight for me.  I screamed as I hit ground and slithered over to my bedroom.

It was tempting in the extreme to shut the bedroom door and never leave.  The bedroom had been out of bat path and I wanted to keep it that way. The problem is, I realized, if I do not watch the bat go out that window with my own eyes, I will not ever sleep again.  So I sat on the floor in the door way of my bedroom and observed.  There was silence.  The silence stretched for ages.  It hadn’t flown out, I was sure of it.  I grew bolder.  I opened a second window, creating a cross breeze.  Now the tiny arctic kisses I’d hunted and plugged one-by-one were of little concern.  Bellowing frigid winds sent my pendant lamps swinging wildly, the shadows on the ground mimicking those of the bat, rendering me perpetually panicked.  I’d freeze for nights if I have to, I thought sternly. But I will watch that bat go out the window.  I kept my vigil, stubbornly welcoming in the deep winter.  In the corner my little heater hummed plaintively. Still, nothing.

Finally, I got out for a proper look.  I turned all the lights on so I could see my little bomber, not wanting to see him at all, not wanting to have anything to do with him, but unable to wait him out forever.  Finally I spotted him.  High up on the wall, a small brown rectangle about four inches long looking nothing at all like a winged creature.  He’d been there quite a long time, but I thought it was one of the many holes in the wall cut for wiring and never patched.  I stared at him, not wanting to see him at all. It was agonizing.  I wanted him to move so that he’d fly out my windows and leave me to my heaters, still ineffectually puffing against the wintry onslaught.  But if he moved I would just die, I would shriek and die, and would probably dive and not see him leave a window, and live forever in terror.  I briefly considered moving out again.  Everything was ruined, that was for sure.

But then two things occurred to me: (1) my landlady lives downstairs.  And (2) my landlady has a husband.  I called her at once:

“Tatia, hi!”

“Oh hey, you’re back, huh?”

“Tatia, there is a BAT up here.”

“Yeah, great huh?”

“What? Did you hear what I just said?”

“I hear you fine.”

“I said there is A BAT IN THE HOUSE.”

“A WHAT?  How?! Did you leave the window open?”

“Tatia, it’s like negative 8, do you think I’m crazy?”

“Are you scared?”

“I am TERRIFIED!”

“I’ll send my husband up. I can’t come!”

Relieved to longer be alone with my nightmare, I kept a bloodhound watch on the greasy furball clinging to my wall.  Don’t even think about it, sucker, I thought.  Oh I was very brave now. I had backup.

Soon enough, the husband came trundling upstairs.  He was marvelous.  Exactly as brave and decisive as you hoped he’d be, but no macho posturing.  After some consideration, he shut the windows and decided he would have to capture it in a bucket.  This was madness. Catch it? A bat? Can you do that? What if the thing took off as he approached it with the bucket? And he had a bat flying directly at his face? The horror was unfathomable.  The best thing for me to do, I figured, was to hide in the bedroom so I wouldn’t tip him off to his grisly fate and risk him quitting the field.

From the kitchen he found a plastic bucket and fashioned a sort of lid out of a firm sheet of plastic.  I watched through the cracked bedroom door as he crept stealthily towards the wall, no doubt cursing his gender and the bat-catching duties that are its birthright. I couldn’t watch any more. I shut my eyes.

There was a solid thunk as the bucket hit the wall and no screeching followed so I knew he’d won the first round.  Kneeling on top of the piano to reach the bat, he slipped the plastic under the bucket and peeled the bat from the wall. It did not take to madly careening around the bucket, for which we were both silently grateful.

Peeling it off the wall, the husband made a run for the window, I opened it, and my little visitor was tipped out onto the eaves where he lay for a while in shock.  I knew how he felt.

I started a fire in the fireplace and fell in front of it on my bean bag, comforting myself with handfuls of fudge that my mother had, with great foresight, sent in my bags, a calming taste of a faraway land of central heating and abundant kitchens and no aerial bombardment by flying rodents.

Of Lunch and Liberty

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I nearly had a panic attack in the Which Wich in downtown Dallas earlier this year.  I did not know what a Which Wich was.  A Which Wich, it turns out, is a sandwich shop where you have to do everything.  You have to choose the bread, then you choose the cheese, and then you choose what types of meat in what combinations, and then which toppings, and there is a dizzying array of selections grouped into opaque and impenetrable pricing patterns such that, much as with the old DC taxi zone system, you pretty much have to take their word for it when they tell you what you owe them.

I’d had a frenzied and discouraging search for non-disgusting food outlets across the whole of downtown, was running out of time, and generally in a completely frazzled headspace when I stumbled into line of Which Wich, which went out the door.  Plenty of happiness studies have shown people feel better about what they’ve got when they had fewer alternatives to fret over. Which Wich don’t care.  You have to pick up a brown paper bag and document your sandwich dissertation directly onto the bag and then get in line, and it was somewhere between bag retrieval and dissertation completion that I flipped.

WHAT kind of wretched place is this?  I don’t understand what I am doing, I don’t know exactly what I want, I DO NOT KNOW WHICH WICH and I just want SOMEBODY to TELL me.  Why should I have to decide these things?  YOU’RE the food establishment, you make sandwiches ALL day, you must have given SOME thought into what delightful flavor combinations might make for appealing sandwiches – I will tell you to hold the mayo!  It’s fine! But I have enough things in one day to think about and adjudicate and decide and I do not want to have to spend five minutes ruminating on sandwich construction! Just give me a good sandwich and do not ask me which wich!!  I welcome the Nanny State sandwich establishment!

This aversion to choice may explain the appeal of the old Soviet milieu.

My current lunch spot is much more to my liking.  It is called Paprika and a couple of Georgian ladies stand behind the counter of daily wares and tell me what I will have for lunch.  They could call it THAT WICH.

It is wonderful.

“I think chicken,” I will say.  Their chicken is lovely.

“No, no, no,” they will tell me. “Today we have ghomi with cheese, you must take that.”  Ghomi is grits. A bit, I don’t know, carby I thought. What I thought couldn’t be farther from the point.  “It’s a bit too much…” I said looking at the container brimming with goopy clumps.  “It’s not too much, it’s one portion, and it’s good with spinach so how much spinach are you taking? 100g or 150?”  In this I have a choice, clearly defined.  “100!” I proudly agree.  And then I am told to take the yeasty roll, which is French and fresh and very good.

I am always happy with their commandments.  Leave these things to the specialists, I say.

Inside the office I unwrapped my wares under the vigilant glare of the cleaning lady.  I feel guilty every time I breath the same air as the cleaning lady.  Moving up stairs and across the room takes the breath out of her, as does lifting trash cans and bending over to sweep with those inexplicably stunted mini-brooms they use here.  She moves like a woman uniquely bedeviled by the ills of this world, and all our cares are heaped upon her shoulders.  So I’m kind of scared of her. I knew she had her eyes on my food.

“Ghomi!” I said smiling, showing her.  She brightened at once.  “It is from Samegrelo, yes?” I said, mentioning the Georgian region known for their grits. “Yes,” she confirmed, beaming.

I pulled the ghomi out of the microwave, her eyes still on me.

“One minute is not enough!  Put it back in!”  she announced.  And so I did.

Pulling it out again, I reached for the salt and pepper in the cabinet.  I’d opened up the salt and prepared to sprinkle when she sprang between the ghomi and the shaker, shielding it, her heavy panting breath forgotten for the moment.  “NO salt!!!” she said.

“No? Oh.”  I held up the pepper shaker.  “Pepper, yes?”

“No! No no!  It is not the way, I am from Samegrelo, you cannot do it.”  Oh hell.  It’s absurd to back down when the cleaning lady’s telling you not to salt your food, but if the seasoning’s going to be an insult to her people, you’re kind of a jerk if you push ahead.  “It’s tradition!” she said.

“But I like it better that way,” I lamely protested — an argument whose irrelevance can hardly be overstated.

“Tradition,” she repeated.

And so I slunk upstairs, tail between my legs, bland old ghomi and spinach in hand.  A few minutes after digging in, I heard the tell tale panting of the cleaning lady working her way up the stairs.  She was walking towards me.  “Oh jeez,” I thought. “She’s coming to watch me eat.”

She held a little saucer in hands and set in front of me.  In it was the spicy Megrelian tomato sauce called adjika.  “Adjika,” she explained. “Goes with ghomi.  Eat. It will be even better.  It’s tradition.”

I paused at my boss’s office after lunch.  “You know,” I said, “The whole Georgian eating experience really raises a lot of interesting philosophical questions about free will.” Forget whether free will is compatible with an omniscient God. I’m not sure it’s even compatible with chicken.

He concurred. In years past, he and his wife had been in search of a hard-to-find Chinese restaurant, and every time they stopped a Georgian to ask its location, the horrified patriot redirected them at once to an acceptable Georgian restaurant.  As far as I know, they never got their dim sum.

What my Opinionated Armenian Hair Stylist Said to Me


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“Will you cry if I do more than just trim it?”

“What, you don’t like surprises?”

“Better to be bald like me than have this on your head.”

“I think in one year we can have it all in shape.”

“This? You see this? You don’t need this.” *snip*

“You don’t like to take care of your hair, do you?”

“Put intensive mask on your hair or you will not like yourself at all.”

“You try to hide. Do not hide. You have nothing to hide from.”

“So. I gave you what you said you did not want. But it is more natural this way. That is always better.”

[This message brought to you by a tumbleweed perched on a stick.]

The Most Unlikely Revolution

You may have heard there was an election in Georgia on Monday. You also may not have. Despite the the rather strained attempts by some U.S. Georgia experts to put this vote on par with Egypt and Libya and endow it with the power to rock the U.S. Presidential campaigns, it’s basically a local story.  But a very big local story. The fear-mongering of a U.S. election campaign — pretending the other guy is going to dismantle our way of life and turn us into communists or fascists — is actually a live threat in a country where the political institutions aren’t even a generation old, and the spectacle of dissidents lined up against the wall is easily in living memory.  It’s easy to forget that, and it explains the electric nervousness of the city in the weeks leading up to the big day.  The sounds of the season have been jackhammer construction and chanting demonstrations.  Both kicked off by politics, and both building into a mighty crescendo for the elections.  Donald Rumsfeld told us that democracy was messy.  He might have added it was also pretty noisy.

So the city was braced for the battle.  Daily demonstrations raging against a late-breaking prison abuse scandal sprouted around town every night.  The government, eager for photo ops, whipped construction crews into a frenzy and the streets were choked with cyclones of dust. The hordes of grizzled workmen banging away around the clock seemed just about enough to raise pyramids up on Rustaveli Avenue.  (“My brother’s management style,” said a friend whose brother is in government and overseeing some of the construction: “is basically: finish before the elections or you go to prison.”)

Governments don’t budge easily in this part of the world, and they don’t like close shaves on polling day. In this, Georgia was already veering off script.  The Moscow correspondents of big papers sent to Tbilisi to cover the elections marveled at the novelty. Thirty minutes before the polls close and you don’t know the outcome?  What sort of post-Soviet banana republic is this anyway?

There is a standard protocol to be followed here.  You don’t leave anything up to chance. You certainly don’t let the opposition win.  And you never, ever, concede without a fight.

Reliable for delivering drama and surprise, Georgia pulled the wildest trick of all: the government exhausted its tricks and, with a sigh, went into opposition.  In Georgia, the most unlikely revolution of all is the one that doesn’t happen. Anybody who says they know what the opposition is all about is full of it.  We know they’re political novices and haven’t made an impressive start.  The outgoing government were the architects of 2003’s democratic revolution, but their hubris and unchecked messiah complex brought on abuse.  With this concession and retreat into opposition, they salvaged their own democratic birthright.  It is not at all clear, yet, whether it is good that the opposition coalition won.  But it is good, I believe, that this government lost.

I was on Freedom Square when the polling stations closed and the exit poll results were announced — a decent approximation, usually, of what the official results will be.  Around me were throngs of opposition supporters of all ages and classes.  University girls, chain-smoking taxi drivers, Moms with kids, grey hairs, rowdy boys.  I suddenly heard cheers go up from pockets of the crowd as the news of an opposition victory spread through cell phones.  Around me people begin hugging and clapping and cheering.  It seemed miraculous.  Two weeks ago – before the prison abuse scandal – the government had been polling 20 points ahead.  It was a spectacular collapse.  A stunned euphoria settled over the opposition-friendly capital and the party rocked the city all night.  The air was shattered by car horns, people danced in the streets, the police kept a light presence, and the entire city had the feel of a house party with the parents out of town.

Around the corner from the epicenter, tucked back in my little corner of the Old Town, the mood was quieter.  There is an old woman, something of a stout, middle-aged Rapunzel.  Roosted firmly on her balcony, she serves as town cryer for our little quarter.  In the mornings I see her lowering a small basket from a length of rope so that the newspaper seller can fill it with the daily journals, which she heaves back up to her wooden perch.  That night, she leaned over the balcony and looked through her thick glasses at the five or six men gathered below.  She calmly relayed the exit poll results, and the men repeated the figures back carefully, making sure they understood.  The soccer playing boys on my street appeared wrapped in opposition flags for their nightly match.  I strolled back up to my attic hideaway, looked up over the Narikala fortress lit up on the hillside, and marveled at what had just happened.  This city has been standing here for 15 centuries, maybe more.  It’s been sacked by Persians, ruled by Arabs, under the thumb of the Russians, dismembered by civil war, trampled by militias, and raged with revolution.  The one thing it had never done, until now, is hold an election where the other guy wins.

more photos and videos from Election night here.

On fruit and loyalty

I have a fruit problem. This happens every time.

Georgia is where I first understood what it means to eat seasonally: that old-world necessity and new-world virtue.  This was before the days of western-style grocery stores popping up everywhere (for which, I’ll fess up, I’m profoundly grateful).  All the fruit and veg was brought in from the countryside or by traders with Turkey and sold from corner stalls and beat-up garages.  You got what was growing.  Period.

For fruit, that meant winter was mandarini, little clementine-style sweet citrus – not quite our sour mandarins.  I still remember one long, cold week when Jason came to visit me.  We had no power and we’d sit and huddle on the couch and eat kilos of mandarini and watch episodes of Felicity on my laptop until it ran out of juice.  An intrepid soul, he’d venture across the street when we ran out of supplies, comfortable by then with the order: erti kilo mandarini. 

But summer.  Summer was my downfall.  I am a slave to strawberries in the best of times and I had never – I tell you never – had strawberries like these.  Small and brilliant red and the flavor!  Had I ever actually had a strawberry before then?  They were so ripe  that those at the bottom of the bag would be smooshed into dusty juice and they wouldn’t keep at all.  And so I’d sit for those few weeks – that strawberry window of summer before they’d disappear again for another year – and eat myself sick on them.  My friends, when the season comes, still send me photos of their arrival.

But now it’s fall and fall means grapes.  The rtveli, the grape harvest, is underway in Kakheti to the east and all of the street market stalls are laden with the purple and pale green orbs.  There is a certain type of grape – and I am determined to learn what it’s called, that tastes like no other grape I’ve ever had.  It tastes like the sweetest, tartest most irresistible candy.  And I eat them in great piles, spitting out bowls full of the little seeds, waiting to turn purple like Veruca Salt.  I always buy them from the same village lady.  Like a totem she is there every day without fail with her delicious grapes and her moustache and dressed in the same faded black dress.  No matter how many of her grapes I pile up on the ancient scale, it always costs one lari (about 60 cents).  “Lari!” she will croak to me, holding up one cracked and thick finger.  It seems a hideously unfair trade.  Armfuls of decadent grapes for me.  A measley little lari for her.

The thing is, her delicious little grapes are a little spider webby.  It kind of grosses me out a little.  I wash them, very thoroughly, but there’s still some sticky webby stuff that clings from time to time.  So today in a rather ill-advised move, I tried a different vendor.  Unlike my moustachio’d grape lady, he was a clean-shaven man and his grapes were enormous, perfectly spherical – iconic grapes.  I eagerly pounced on several bunches, and threw in a pomegranate and some pears and the last of the summer peaches too.  Unable to wait, I snuck an unwashed grape into my mouth on the walk home.  What a let down.  It tasted like … a grape.  A normal, nice-enough grape.  Not like a revelation, it might take me days and days to work through this ho-hum harvest.

I had to pass by the moustache lady on the way back.  It was a perilous moment.  I held the fruit down behind the side of my far leg.  She had her back turned.  I was clear.  And I’ll be back.

Evening in Old Town

This guy has been hanging around the Old Town, looking entirely put upon, for as long as I can remember.  It’s easy to like a statue eternally posed not to sing glories to victors, but to ask: “what do ya want from me?”  That’s certainly how I feel most of the time, between dodging murderous marshrutka drivers and falling into sinkholes left behind by the plague of construction contractors that have swarmed every corner of the capital city.  So I felt we understood each other, this poor embattled chap and I, not least because he is most often found with an unhurried bird squatting serenely upon his head.  Only now I’ve learned we have something else in common: that this is Ietim Gurji, a famed folk poet of turn-of-the-century Tbilisi and namesake of the street I now live on.

It’s an unremarkable little street, anonymously twisted into the spaghetti plate mess of streets inside the old fortress walls of the city.  While half of the Old Town is posing for cameras in fresh-painted walls and rebuilt balconies and evenly paved cobblestones, back here on Ietim Gurji Street we are beyond the approved tourist map and the buildings still sag and creak and the thin metal sheeting over my head bangs like a kettle drum when it rains, finally building to a satisfying white roar.

Old Tbilisi, some are saying, is starting to look like Disneyland. The government is in a prettifying frenzy, tearing down old buildings without regard for historical status or architectural value, throwing up new ones in a hurry. On the new lanes rebuilt to tourist spec, nobody’s yet living.  They are antiseptic, inauthentic, literally hollow.  In a hive like Tbilisi, they are eerily quiet.

 

 

And yet, they’re so pretty.  Many of the buildings in this district were so damaged by earthquake and time and decades of neglect due to poverty and war and every other conceivable woe, that they were entirely unsuited for human habitation.  If the area is to be lived in, if it must be rebuilt from scratch, at least it is done in keeping with the old style – and not just the ornate wooden balconies which are pleasingly everywhere, but the crush of buildings into each other, the balconies running into roofs running into walls running into courtyards.  A huddling way of life has always been the way in the Old Town, and so it should stay, even with fresh paint.  They will not, I can comfortably predict, stay so fresh and clean for long.

Besides there is plenty of authentic Old Tbilisi still to go around.  Back here on Ietim Gurjis the streets are narrow and half buried in a fine dust that cakes your shoes.  They logically connect absolutely no two things, and so — a real respite in this town — there are blessedly few cars tearing through here.  From well before sundown until late, a gang of young boys plays soccer on the street, screaming and yelling and bouncing the ball of these old walls until the bellowing old hippo of a man comes out onto his balcony to bark them scurrying into their homes.  It’s the sort of late summer memory I also have — in a street far away, kicking balls around with the neighborhood kids and yelling into the falling dark.

There are demonstrations around town over the prison abuse scandal – and rightly so.  But there is no sign of them here on Ietim Gurji street.  The ice cream woman comes around on hot days, lugging her box on a shoulder strap and singing out her wares in her crone’s call.  The dogs call out to one another.  An alert doberman keeps watch at night as the boys kick the ball and everyone hits the walls when a lost car slaloms through these narrow chutes.  Someone on the street is calling up to a woman enjoying the cool evening on her balcony.  He has the gravelled, unsettling bark of his brethren and he sounds angry.  But he is only asking which is the house of his friend.


 

Road Warrior

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It was a proper horror show of a ride home from Western Georgia last evening in the marshrutka – the cargo vans that haul us peasants to and fro around this country.  The taxi driver to the marshrutka station was a beast, leering and slapping his temples in glee when I answered in the negative to his question about my marital status.  “So good! So good!”  What leads him to believe this state of affairs could ever result in good for him is chalked up to the mystery of the unfathomable male ego.  His parting words to me, clasping my hand between his paws, betrayed the depths of his sorrow at our parting. I could not leap out fast enough.

From there, deposited to the mercy of the marshrutka barkers, manhandled by one particularly aggressive chap towards a van in the back of the lot, who howled in his operatic baritone to the loitering collection of grey-faced and filthy pals ringing the vehicle that he’d hauled in a good one.  No sooner were we on the road for the three and half hour journey back to Tbilisi when the doom gurgle in my intestines began its unmistakable call.  “No, please no,” I silently prayed, shutting my eyes and practicing yogic breathing – a mistake when the driver next to you is exhaling filterless cigarette smoke into your face.

We paused at a roadside hut halfway through the trip home – a lonely patch of road where the land is still folded in impossibly lush green hills.  A pair of near-toothless men in threadbare blazers coated with a cement colored silt occupied the porch of the little structure where a sturdy matron peddled snacks and water and other road treats.  Behind, a dilapidated concrete structure that could have been the remains of a bombing run in Kandahar threatened TUALETI in scrawled lettering.  Toilets.  The gurgle in my intestines was a riot now and there was nothing to it but to hand the 20 tetri piece to the ancient female in the little window, unwind a few wraps from the brown-paper toilet paper roll on her little table, and carry it with me into the trenches.  If you are ill enough, any respite is welcome, and I was sufficiently ill.

The remainder of the trip passed in relative peace, accompanied by booming Russian pop music, and interrupted only by the driver mocking me mercilessly for my fright when we nearly hit a cow.  He seemed offended, taking my gasping and jerking as a great insult to his professional savvy, and certainly the close call had not troubled the vacantly bored expression on anybody else’s face.

Back in Tbilisi, now feeling near to death with a gathering rumble of flu, I flag a taxi to take me home.  “By the Patriarch’s” I say.  “No,” he replies, waving his hand dismissively.  No?  No?  He sighs despondently and names a price I’d be perfectly happy to pay, but I knew he thought he was being extravagant so I brought him down one lari.  Collapsing into the car he commenced a steady stream chatter in Georgian.  You’re from America?  Really?  But you speak so well!  I don’t, I insisted, I don’t understand anything you’re saying.  He apologized for saying no at first, though I couldn’t understand why, and I didn’t much care.  I was nearly there.  Beat down and bedraggled and broken and only relieved that soon I would be back in blissful silence with nobody crowing or leering or blowing smoke in my face or any of that.

I flopped home and succumbed without protest to the tendrils of aches and fever and ennui.  Shattered. Today I am feeling about as sturdy as this bridge below, over which my little hooves must trod most mornings.  I have high hopes for tomorrow, but today has been a write off.  I am not marshrutka ready, this much is clear.

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Unsettling In

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View from my window. SERIOUSLY.

I’m so tired I can’t breathe.  More to the point, I can’t bloody sleep.  It’s not like me – just the workaday insomnia for me, not a three-day bender of ragged raving sleeplessness.  Night one you can chalk up to newness and a rotten arrival time on your flight.  Night two, revelation.  Saints of yore bolted upright at visitations from angels and heavenly hosts.  Yours truly with less exalted visitation by bedbugs.  Or, as it goes with faith, an unsubstantiated but fervently held belief in them anyway.  Subsequent microscopic investigation revealed no evidence of the little beasties.  But something is biting me, and I spied small flying creatures during one frantic lunge at the light switch.  I have set vinegar honey traps and plugged in to wall sockets mysterious Russian products whose packaging features winged things prone on their backs, awful sticky legs surrendering to the sky.  Trust me on this: among the things you do not want to Google at 4am: “bed bug fecal matter.”  Night 3: fading but still righteous terror of biting things, plus bug bite inspection revealing a newly engorged mole that spells nothing at 3am except m-e-l-a-n-o-m-a.  If you are so unlucky as to be on my international speed dial, I am sorry that you had to hear a delirious madwoman wailing “I have bedbugs and cancer!”  I do not mean to make light of either.  In those dark, mad hours I was dead convinced of both.  Thank God for the light of day.

*     *     *

Fundamentally an introvert, there are so many times in a day when the idea of buying things from people seems too daunting to consider.  I fumble with the language and don’t want to draw the attention to myself. But the best and freshest and cheapest fruit and cheese and spices and sauces to buy are from the village vendors who take up shop along the streets and underpasses.  I decided to adopt one of the stalls as my go-to villagers so that the arrival of the American wouldn’t be such a production.  They’re darlings, these.  After the usual pleasantries (“Where are you from, my dear?”) and the usual fibs (“you speak Georgian so well!”) we enter into global tomato showdown. They asked me if the vegetables and fruits in Georgia taste better than the fruit in America, knowing perfectly well what the answer will be and standing back and beaming before I even can start getting effusive over how great their fruit is.  “They are big in America, but not delicious” says me.  “Yes, big!  Because it’s GMO!  GMO!” says them.  And I say EXACTLY and we smile together in agreement, parity established.  As superpowers go, you could do worse than global fruit dominance.  Phew.  Groceries sorted.  I count the days, but still, unlike taxi drivers my village vendors have yet to ask if I’m married with kids and how old I am, which gets really old.  An American friend (you know who you are) invented an entire imaginary family for the benefit of her taxi drivers, only I believe she kept forgetting the ages of the fake kids.  All cities have their petty hazards.